In early December 2018, Egyptian squash player Karim Abdel Gawad was crowned winner of the Black Ball Squash Open in Cairo, a major international tournament in the top-tier Professional Squash Association (PSA) World Tour. The runner up was also Egyptian: Ali Farag. In the quarter and semi-finals, Abdel Gawad defeated the Egyptian players Mohamed el-Shorbagy and Tarek Momen consecutively.
Egypt’s domination of an international squash tournament is not unique. El-Shorbagy leads the men’s PSA World Ranking and Farag is number two. Momen and Abdel Gawad come in fourth and ninth place respectively, and another Egyptian, Mohamed Abouelghar, completes the top ten.
The women’s ranking is similar. Egyptians fill the top three spots, with a total of four Egyptians in the top ten. In the Hong Kong Open in December, Raneem el-Welily beat Nour el-Sherbini to claim the number one position.
So what fuels Egypt’s squash success? Football is by far the most popular national sport. However, with the exception of Liverpool star Mohamed Salah, the country is far from playing on the global stage. There is no other sport in Egypt that comes close to matching squash’s achievements.
Squash originated in England in the 19th century. It spread from there to the Commonwealth and beyond under the influence of Britain, which built squash courts for its diplomats and officers. Hence, most top squash players have come from countries that had a strong British presence such as Pakistan, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt. International championships started in the 1930s, and even in those early days Egypt played a leading role. The first major champions were FD Amr Bey, an Egyptian diplomat who started playing during his posting in London, and later Mahmoud Karim.
After several decades of Pakistani players topping the rankings, Egyptians rose to dominance again in the 1990s. Some say Hosni Mubarak, former president and a fervent squash player himself, was instrumental in promoting the sport in Egypt. He brought an international tournament, the Al-Ahram championship, to Egypt in 1996 for the first time. He had a glass court built next to the pyramids in Giza, and the championship was broadcast live on television. He personally congratulated the winner, Ahmed Barada.
“With Barada, squash got a lot of exposure, and it has become more popular since,” Ashraf Mounir, managing director of the Squash Academy at Gezira Sporting Club, told Fanack.
New stars included Amr Shabana, who trained at Gezira, and later Ramy ‘The Artist’ Ashour, who is considered one of the game’s most gifted players ever. “In Egypt we don’t obey rules as the English or Germans or [Americans do]. This helps us in squash,” Ashour once told The New York Times. Egyptian players are known for their typically offensive style. “Egyptians are attacking all the time, with drop-shots and volleys; Brits play more basic,” said Mounir, an ex-player who reached the sixth position in the Egypt ranking.
More recently, Egyptian women have also risen to prominence in the world rankings. “They were inspired by the success of the male players,” according to Mounir.
Part of Egypt’s success likely lies in the fact that the top players are concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria and hence live in close proximity to each other. They are all part of a tight-knit community in sport clubs and can train with the very best on a regular basis.
“The club infrastructure is important. They have a lot of courts and organize tournaments every two or three weeks,” Mounir said. “That means a lot of competition and practice.” Egypt reportedly has the world’s third highest number of squash courts.
The presence of champions in Egyptian clubs also creates an important impetus for young players. There is always a role model around to look up to. “Juniors are seeing champions from Egypt at their clubs and want to be like them,” Mounir said. “It is becoming more popular every day. The national championship has almost 1,000 players participating. That’s a big pool.”
Squash can also be a means to pursue other ambitions. For instance, his squash achievements helped Ali Farag to study at Harvard University, and other players have received scholarships to study abroad. Faced with tough economic conditions and expensive education at home, many young Egyptians dream of opportunities overseas.
Playing squash from a very young age is another key to success, said Mahfouz Zaza, who has been coaching at Gezira for 30 years. “Children can start playing at the age of five. You have to start early with professional training to reach the top. In Europe, they often start playing in their teens. That is too late.”
Seven-year-old Maria is one of the players training with Zaza. “I saw friends playing squash and they liked it. I also saw it on television,” she said. “So, I changed from gymnastics to squash. I like it, I can learn a lot of new things.” She plays four times a week for about an hour, driving from the other side of town to reach the club.
Despite the continued success of Egyptian players, government investments are not a contributing factor, said Mounir. “It’s nothing compared to football.” Instead, financial injections come from the clubs and sponsorship, for example the Commercial International Bank and Ezz Steel.
Top players make good money. “Not like tennis, but still good,” Mounir said. Prize money at major international tournaments can exceed $100,000. In addition, squash players earn a salary teaching at the clubs and through sponsorships. The three main clubs – al-Ahly, Wadi Degla (Cairo) and Smouha (Alexandria) – often buy good players away from other clubs. For instance, Abdel Gawad used to play at Gezira but moved to al-Ahly. Both world number ones el-Shorbagy and el-Sherbini play at Smouha.
A potential threat to Egypt’s dominance is the exclusivity of the sport. Playing squash to a large extent means being able to become a member of one of the private clubs. Membership is passed down from generation to generation, and buying oneself in without a family connection costs a fortune. Hence, the pool of potential squash players remains somewhat limited. But those within that pool have access to world-class facilities and training opportunities.
“Some clubs admit non-members and select players from those,” Mounir said. “More players mean more opportunities.”
In the immediate future, Mounir believes Egypt will continue to dominate the sport. “The number of juniors is still expanding,” he said. As long as girls like Maria choose to play squash and have access to a quality trainer, Egypt’s squash future looks bright.